Remembering 9/11

Twenty years ago, September 11, 2001, 3,229 people lost their lives to terrorism. Most of us remember exactly where we were we heard the news or tuned into the newscasts. It was a national tragedy like Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, the Challenger explosion, and other seismic events that have rocked our lives. At first it seemed like an awful accident that a plane had hit one tower of the World Trade Center. That notion quickly evaporated as another plane hit the remaining tower. Then there was news out of Washington that the Pentagon had been hit, and next was the word that Flight 93 had been hijacked, put on autopilot and was headed for D.C. Possible targets were the Capitol or White House.

We recall with poignant pride that Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer said, “Let’s roll!” He and the other passengers assaulted the terrorists holed up in the cockpit, and selflessly gave their lives in a Pennsylvania field just 20 minutes flying time away from Washington. Forty-four souls died on Flight 93. One hundred eighty-nine souls died at the Pentagon, and two thousand nine hundred and ninety-six died at the World Trade Center. Of those, three hundred forty-three were firefighters, twenty-three were NYPD, and thirty-seven more were police with the NY Port Authority.

Some of you, like me, have been to one or more of these historic sites. At Trinity Church, two short blocks away from where the twin towers once stood, I saw the photo-copied faces of the missing on the makeshift barriers as the nearby buildings were held together by wire, rebar, and blue tarp. This was just a few months after 9/11, and the graveyard at Trinity was still covered in the gray ash of the dead mixed with debris. None of us will forget the scenes: fire departments and police from all over the country doing their part to sift through the rubble; President Bush with bullhorn in hand at perhaps his finest hour standing on the twisted metal; enlistment lines at local military recruitment stations; churches that were full. We were one nation pulling together.

NFL star Pat Tillman turned down a multi-million-dollar contract to keep playing for the Arizona Cardinals so he could enlist. It was 8 months after 9/11. Pat Tillman became a US Army Ranger and served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He died in combat from “friendly fire” in the mountains of Afghanistan. He gave the supreme sacrifice like all those first-responders who ran toward the destruction, not from it. We can honor them by continuing to stand in the breach, and declare, “Not on my watch!” We will honor them by filling churches once again like the Sundays after 9/11. We can promise to stand tall and support civility and civilization. We will depend on our faith in our struggle against injustice, tyranny, and the destruction of morality.

Foreign adversaries laugh now at how our fissures have exposed our weaknesses. We have given them fodder for their attacks. We have become what Jesus and Lincoln both described as a “house divided against itself.” It is our turn to say, “Let’s roll!” We cannot let our freedoms divide us. Can we not do what was done in 2001? Can we not pull together and honor one another though we might disagree? Can’t we embrace the Golden Rule by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us?

Jesus came to foster freedom, but it was not a freedom from responsibility. It was a freedom to embrace responsibility: to love God and neighbor because we want to, not because some totalitarian government threatens us. We can all be American, and live and let live if there is a common cause worth the greater fight or larger battle. We can all do our part to save America from another 9/11. The fabric and soul of our country depends on more than the few and the brave. Each one of us has a part to play.  God bless every 9/11 family, and God bless America.

Is Ignorance the Enemy at the Gates?

As we have watched scenes in Afghanistan, it feels very literally like “the enemy is at the gates.” Many of us already feel besieged by COVID. The Coronavirus has caused all of our feelings to be superglued to our sleeves, and we sometimes take ungodly pleasure in taking swipes at the sleeves of others. We have become so easily offended, and offensive. Road rage is rampant. Feelings of “my way or the highway” have turned us against one another. Everybody has an opinion about vaccinations, and devil may care attitudes about what science says. We’re living in a tough time: Hurricane Ida, wildfires out West, earthquakes in Haiti, and the debacle in Afghanistan is a crime against every Afghan interpreter, woman, girl, and the thousands of coalition forces that have suffered to make that country a better place, and ours safer.

It is convincing to me that many of our problems, especially in Afghanistan, are rooted in faulty intelligence. With COVID we could add pride and selfishness, but the primary cause of the decline of our values and morality is plain old ignorance. Every one of us could talk about multiple contemporary subjects where we have displayed wholesale ignorance, and depended on personal opinion or the opinion of others (e.g., the media) more than we should, but here’s just one. Yesterday, esteemed ex-President Jimmy Carter was extolled for his opinion that the practice of homosexuality is okay because Jesus never talked about it. I wish he would do his theological homework before “armchair quarterbacking,” an opinion that he seems to have reached only toward the end of his long life now that it’s become popular and politically expedient.

He, and the rest of us, could benefit from reading the solid exegesis of someone like Dr. John Stott, in his book Same Sex Relationships, or brilliant author and podcaster N.T. Wright, who dives deep on the subject. But, even Tom Wright gives academic deference to what he calls the best short treatment of the human sexuality debate that is found in one of the chapters in former Duke Divinity Dean, Dr. Richard B. Hays’ book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. These are three well-respected and intelligent scholars who can be very helpful in shaping anyone’s thinking. They have almost nothing in common with either conservative fundamentalists or milquetoast progressives, but provide a fair and balanced perspective. They can provide anchors for your understanding in the face of superficial false teaching.

After all, Jesus may not have technically used the word, “homosexual,” but He certainly defined marriage. In Matthew 19:5-6, Jesus said, “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” What Jesus said was as clear as a bell!

So, how does Jimmy Carter and many others miss the plain teaching of Scripture? Is it ignorance, or the thinking that if you say something often enough it becomes true? Really, what causes us to be amenable and accepting of behaviors that have been firmly rejected by thousands of years of Christian teaching? Is it our pride, or the influence of the cultural moment? Is it superficial reasoning or Biblical ignorance? Perhaps most of all, is it the inner conflict of observing family and close friends who struggle with same-sex attraction? Which one of these experiential factors is worthy of being elevated to a status equal or better than the Scripture of God? I know it’s difficult and can be complex. I’ve been there, got the t-shirt.

We’ve all been close to people that were or are doing things that we’re convinced isn’t in their ultimate best interest, and isn’t a part of God’s desire for them. In any such case, how do we differentiate between our dear love of someone and our well-founded concern that they’re involved in an unholy pattern of behavior? Well, the ultimate example is always Jesus.

If you’ve had a chance to watch “The Chosen” at all, it’s a great snapshot that this is all exactly what Jesus does so deftly with his disciples, even in their most ignorant moments: he lives a perfect balance of accountability and grace (watch here: http://www.thechosen.tv/app or search “The Chosen” in your app store). I love it! It’s a great reminder that cherry-picking and proof-texting Jesus’ words are never a substitute for who he was, and who he is, as a whole person and as the living God. Trying to confine him to our current cultural standards, mincing the things we claim he did or didn’t say, quoting his famous lines on “love” while neglecting his equal teaching on obedience and righteousness – it all falls short of letting Jesus be his whole self.

My hope is that we can all embody his wholeness, his balance, before our values go down the drain of human history. God forbid that the only people on the planet who promote moral absolutes are the Taliban. Couldn’t there be a movement among Christians who are as fervent about our God and our Gospel, including a holy measure of grace and forgiveness? Can’t we do the hard work of thinking through the tough questions while holding fast to both our love of God and our love of others? I think we can do both, and I believe we must.

Jesus and the Crew

Reflection on Afghanistan, COVID and Leadership

Everything about Afghanistan has confirmed my strong conviction that sacrifice, duty, and leadership count. God bless the families of fallen service men and women who have made the supreme sacrifice and those who have paid the last full measure of devotion. The latest casualties strike at the core of what makes America great because their mission was humanitarian. They were there in Kabul to rescue and evacuate. May their memories encourage us, and inspire us to be like Jesus who gave his all so that we might live, and in life itself was willing to wash the disciples’ feet.  Lord, have mercy, we plead and pray.

Lord, give strength and comfort to all those who have given of themselves in all of our battles, especially against illnesses like COVID, injustice, terrorism and every infraction against the Golden Rule. Help our teachers, parents, nurses, doctors, caregivers, hospice workers, firefighters, police, EMS, first responders, last responders, and, of course, our brave service men and women who serve in harm’s way. All of these are for whom the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” are eerily appropriate today.

That charge at the 1854 Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War by the British was heroic, but disastrous because of miscommunication, but they did their duty nevertheless. It reads:

Theirs was not to make reply,

Theirs was not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Duty, honor, and sacrifice are the by-product of leadership in families, schools, churches, and town halls on up to the highest reaches of government. We are a chain, only as strong as the weakest link, and the crucibles we’ve been facing have proven the mettle of our leaders and found it either worthy or not. The history books are the final arbiters. There will be applause and pundits in the meantime. The best leadership is gauged not by polls, but purpose.

For instance, I have been reading about Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., often called, “The Toughest Man in World War II.” He and his family were keen on purpose. His father was President Theodore Roosevelt of San Juan Hill and Roughrider fame who proposed that prudence demands that freedom-loving people, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” President Teddy Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, was shot down and died in World War I. Another son, Kermit, served in World War I and II. Son, Archie, retired from the military after being shot in the knee in World War I, but insisted on coming back for World War II. He served in the Pacific Theater, was wounded again and received the Silver Star with three oak-leaf clusters. Ted, Jr. led the D-Day invasion as a part of the first wave at Utah Beach.

Why so much dedication to fight for their country? Their father, President Teddy Roosevelt, modeled and instilled a mindset of duty and military obligation. So, no wonder Ted, Jr. was the highest-ranking American officer on the invasion beaches. He was warned against it, but he replied that his troops needed him.

One author, K.S. Bruce, sums it up with this account: “Imagine it is D-Day, June 6, 1944, and you are a young private hitting Utah Beach in the very first wave, into the teeth of the German army, against a rainfall of enemy gunfire, artillery shrapnel and gore. You are filled with fear, and there on the beach in front of you, stands an old man. An American brigadier general – bull-frog voiced, pop-eyed, 5-foot-8 inches tall and directing the troops with his cane. Calm as a man can be in combat, he is Ted Roosevelt, Jr. At age 56 with bad arthritis, he had volunteered to be on the landing boats in order to give the young troops reassurance and to arm them with his same fortitude and courage, and he did exactly that. When he realizes he and his men are a mile from their designated drop-off point, he calmly looked at a map while dodging bullets and opined, ‘We’ll start the war from here.’”

Now, how’s that for leadership? In 5 weeks, he would be dead from a heart attack, but not without first leading his men ashore. His own son, Quentin, named after Ted, Jr.’s brother who was killed in World War I, was also in the first wave on D-Day, only to die some time later. How many invasions had this privileged son of a President been in that he, no doubt, could have escaped? Basically, all of them. As a combat officer in the 26th Regiment of the First Division (The “Big Red One”) during World War I, Ted, Jr. helped lead the Americans into France. In 1941, he was back again to help lead the same regiment in the amphibious invasion of North Africa in World War II. He battled into Sicily, and he was with the Fourth Division at D-Day.

For his bravery on Utah Beach, General Ted Roosevelt, Jr. was awarded the Medal of Honor. His father, President Theodore Roosevelt, also received one for his leadership and bravery on San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. They, along with Arthur and Douglas McArthur, are the only father and sons to ever both win a Medal of Honor. Ted, Jr. is buried in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, alongside his younger brother, Quentin, who was killed in World War I. Leadership’s ripple effect spreads far and wide. Its lack does, too.

Oh, how we need leaders today. God help all of those trying to do their best to emulate duty, honor, and sacrifice in our battles both at home and abroad: in classrooms, boardrooms, family rooms, hospital rooms, and in the continued fight against all that is not of God everywhere. May it be said of us, we pray. Amen.

Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., seen in Ste. Mere-Eglise on July 12, hours before he died of a coronary thrombosis. Arthritis caused him to walk with a stick. The 4th Infantry Division commander described him as “the most gallant soldier and finest gentleman I have ever known.” (US Gov)